Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
February 21, 2014
Last week I participated in a program entitled “Blight as Politics” at the University of Michigan school of Architecture. The purpose of the meeting was to explore blight in historical, political, and economic terms.
The call to the conversation stated: “In August 2013, Detroit’s Emergency Financial Manager, Kevyn Orr, declared a “blight emergency” in the city. This declaration staged “blight” as a catastrophic threat to public health, safety, security and well-being on the same order as the other disasters listed in Michigan’s Emergency Management Act, including “hazardous radiological incident,” “hostile military or paramilitary action,” and “terrorist activities, riots, or civil disorders.” Less than a year later, the Detroit Blight Task Force announced that it had discovered over 80,000 blighted buildings in Detroit; according to the Task Force, $850 million was required to carry out the urgently needed demolition of buildings. “
This effort required a “radical expansions of state authority, enormous public expenditures, and drastic alterations of the built environment. And yet, the history of blight as an urban crisis soliciting political economic and social re-organization has yet to receive sustained critical or scholarly attention.”
All of the scholars agreed that “blight” has no clear definition. It is a subjective term that is not objectively determined. It can be applied to any house or neighborhood that those in authority want to “clear.”
Instead of attempting to objectively define “blight,” politicians and corporate leaders call it a disease, most usually cancer.
In the recent report of the Blight Task Force we find this metaphor in the opening letter.
“It is our strong belief that unless and until we eradicate the malignant disease of blight from our city, it will be near impossible to make significant progress,” they say.
“Blight is cancer. Blight sucks the soul out of anyone who gets near it, let alone those who are unfortunate enough to live with it all around them. Blight is radioactive. It is contagious. Blight serves as a venue that attracts criminals and crime. It is a magnet for arsonists. Blight is a dangerous place for firefighters and other emergency workers to perform their duties.”
Much later in the report there is a section that explains blight is defined in Michigan law “as any property that meets any of the following conditions as determined by the applicable governing body.” A quick look at the list reveals how shaky these criteria really are. The list rarely includes anything about the structural quality of a building or its capacity to provide a good home for people. The list includes: “a public nuisance,” ”an attractive nuisance,” “a fire hazard,” “has had the utilities, plumbing, heating or sewage disconnected,” “a tax reverted property,” “owned or under control of a land bank,” or “vacant for five consecutive years.” The Task force added any house “open to the elements and trespassing,” on the “demolition list,” or “publically owned.”
Blight is not about an objective, deteriorating physical conditions. Any home can be “blighted.” The Task Force says that blight is “contagious” and therefore it ”includes those that look good but will become blighted.”
Blight is simply a justification to tear down and clear out neighborhoods.
If we name the problems of housing in our neighborhood as one of homes without people, we would have a Restore the Neighborhoods Task Force. It would establish policies to encourage people to remain in homes and to attract new families through innovative programs like urban homesteading and land trusts.
Declaring a blight emergency is nothing more than a political trick designed to remove mostly poor, mostly African American Detroiters from homes they have long fought to maintain. And it is using the federal money designated to help people stay in their homes to knock them down.
This is an old story. But we do not need to repeat it. Together we can defend homes, and stop evictions, shut offs and foreclosures. We can restore our communities.